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Say sorry, unruly pupils to be told

Techniques used in fighting youth crime are to be tried to cut indiscipline in Scottish schools, David Henderson reports.

Pupils who break school rules may have to say "sorry" to teachers and their peers under the Scottish Executive's latest initiative against indiscipline.

Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, was at Duncan Forbes primary in Culloden on Monday to announce three pilot projects in restorative justice techniques.

Highland, North Lanarkshire and Fife are to employ approaches that have been widely used in tackling youth crime worldwide and are beginning to be introduced to schools in Britain.

The minister said the techniques have been found to reduce exclusions, tackle bullying and motivate disaffected pupils. Whenever pupils transgress they are forced to face up to the consequences of their actions, understand how they have affected people and apologise to anyone they have hurt.

Only last week, Mr Peacock revealed that local authorities are being given pound;500,000 to train teachers as behaviour co-ordinators in a similar classroom initiative on staged intervention, the three-stage process involving supportive fellow teachers that aims to reduce disruption (see below). It was piloted in East Ayrshire and is already proving popular with other authorities.

The minister on Monday said that under the restorative justice approach, teachers would be trained to help pupils use negotiation and mediation techniques to resolve concerns. Duncan Forbes primary is to test peer mediation as a way of settling disputes between pupils. A trained pupil mediator can help others agree on what has happened, what harm has been done and what can be done to put things right.

Mr Peacock said: "Making pupils take responsibility for their actions helps put them back on the right track. It also involves them in improving the learning environment, creating schools where everyone wants to be."

The Executive says that where peer mediation is inappropriate, trained members of the school staff can act as adult facilitators when disputes arise between pupils, between pupils and teachers or parents and teachers.

The emphasis is on apologising, putting the difficulty in the past and agreeing a way forward.

When disputes linger, a facilitator can initiate a restorative conference involving all parties. The process could be used to avoid an exclusion or as part of reintegration following an exclusion. In North Lanarkshire (TESS, October 10, 2003), Brian Steele, an educational psychologist, said that the punitive approach to discipline was failing.

"If all you do is look for guilty parties and punish them, you end up with more people in prison, and more kids excluded from school. You don't reduce crime and you don't change offending behaviour," he said.

Mr Steele said that when people are asked what type of teacher did most for them when they were at school, they usually say something like: "I remember Mr So-and-So - he was firm but fair."

"Restorative justice practices are firm but fair. They hold people to account but they also provide the support they need to meet the demands the school or community makes of them. They are not a soft option," he said.

Mr Peacock said that Cathy Jamieson, the Justice Minister, and his predecessor in education, has also announced that the number of places for young offenders on similar projects is to double in the next two years.

Local authorities have welcomed the Executive's action, as part of its efforts to follow up the recommendations of the national discipline task group.

Ewan Aitken, education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said: "This approach promotes a disciplined environment where young people take responsibility for their actions and understand their impact on others." Mr Peacock re-emphasised that he was investing pound;10 million a year on the task group's recommendations and another pound;11 million a year to fund alternatives to exclusion.

Restorative practice

* foster awareness. Ask questions that raise awarenessof how others are affected. Try to allow victims to express their feelings to offenders.

* avoid scolding. Offenders feel empathy when exposed to how others have been affected by their behaviour. When scolded, they see themselves as victims.

* involve offenders actively. In punitive intervention, offenders are passive. In restorative intervention, they are active and accountable, listening to victims, deciding how to repair harm done, trying to keep commitments.

* accept ambiguity. Fault may be unclear but progress is still possible.

* separate the deed from the doer. The idea is to signal recognition of an offender's worth but disapproval ofwrongdoing.

* see every instance of bad behaviour or conflict as a chance to learn.

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